The 1700s housewife had two options when trying to get her cake to rise. For the first, she could beat eggs or egg whites strenuously for 2-3 hours or she could use yeast and let her cake rise just as she did bread.
The first method was costly in time and money. Recipes of the time call for 12-35 eggs and while eggs were a bit smaller in the days before egg grading and genetically modified hens, that is a lot of eggs for one dish. The second method worked but the housewife would have to wait until the cake rose which can be longer than an hour.
The issue housewives faced was time. If visitors suddenly showed up, it would take at least 2 hours to make a cake. To get around this a housewife might make treats like Hannah Glasse's Portugal Cakes, which she directed lasted half a year if they were made without currants or she could make smaller "cakes" that relied solely on a few eggs for rising. Today we call these small cakes, cookies.
In the 1750s scientists were experimenting with potash, which was wood ash with the lye leeched out and some lye added back. They found that when added to food, it acted as yeast did. Potash did leaven food but it had a bad after taste. Pearlash, a more refined potash became popular in the United States. These leavens revolutionized baking for women who were used to time consuming leavening methods. In later years, saleratus became more popular and eventually baking soda.
For this Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge I used pearlash (potassium carbonate) to make American potash cake or Long Island Pound Cake, so called because the American women adapted this new technology early and apparently the women of Long Island were known for it. Pearlash was called for in four recipes in the first known American cookbook, Amelia Simmons' American Cookery in 1796.
The Challenge: "The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread August 24 - September 6
Create a food item that reflects historical food improvements. Showcase a new discovery in food preparation, a different way of using food, or a different way of serving it. Make sure to include your documentation!"
The Recipe: This recipe was printing in more than one European publication at the time.
The Date/Year and Region: 1799 U.S. and England
How Did You Make It: (a brief synopsis of the process of creation)
- 6 Cups Flour (save one cup for dusting and adjusting)
- 1/2 Pound Butter (2 sticks)
- 1 heaping teaspoon Pearlash or Baking soda (You did use enough)
- 2 Cups Buttermilk or Sour Milk
- 1/2 Cup Sugar
Cut butter into small pieces and mix into the flour well. Put the sugar in the buttermilk and add to the flour mixture. Dissolve baking soda in a little water, add to mixture. Blend together until a soft dough is formed. Add more flour if necessary to make a workable dough. Roll it out to about a 1/2" on a floured surface with a floured rolling pan. Cut out into small circles with a cookie cutter or cup. Place on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. The cakes won't spread while baking.
Time to Complete: 30 minutes
Total Cost: $8.00 I had to make 2 batches.
How Successful Was It?: (How did it taste? How did it look? Did it turn out like you thought it would?) I made the cardinal sin of cooking with potassium carbonate. I added too much, even though every instance of someone telling me they cooked with it ended with them using too much. I guess I read too much into "heaping teaspoon." I had to make a second batch.
When i first started, the recipe seemed similar to sugar cookies, but as i went on I realized that it was actually going to be closer to modern day biscuits.
How Accurate Is It?: More accurate than I would have liked. In the future I would cook these with baking soda as the pearlash is scary to use and I don't feel comfortable serving foods that contain it.
I've really wanted to try a recipe with potash or pearlash to see how differently they acted from modern day equivalents. It was fairly similar. It does have a "taste" but so does baking soda if you put too much in. Can't wait to see what everyone else makes for this challenge!